|View of a Bombardment|
We never become accustomed to the shellfire. Its terror for us increases with each passing day. The days out on rest ease our harried nerves, but as soon as we are back in the line again we are as fearful and jumpy as the newest recruit. With the first hiss and roar of a shell we become terror-stricken as of old.
We look at each other with anxious, frightened faces.
Our lips tighten.
Our eyes open wide.
We do not talk.
What is there to say?
Talk of the coming offensive continues.
The sector becomes more tumultuous.
The guns rage all night.
We "stand to" long before dawn and wait at the parapets expecting an attack until long after sunrise.
The fatigues are innumerable.
Every night there are wiring parties, sapping parties, carrying parties. We come back exhausted from these trips. We throw ourselves down in the dugouts for an hour's sleep.
But we do not rest.
There is no time for rest. We stagger around like drunken, forsaken men. Life has become an insane dream.
Sleep, sleep–if only we could sleep.
Our faces become grey. Each face is a different shade of grey. Some are chalk-coloured, some with a greenish tint, some yellow. But all of us are pallid with fear and fatigue.
It is three in the morning.
Our section is just back from a wiring party.
The guns are quiet.
Dawn is a short while off . . .
We sit on the damp floor of the dugout.
We have one candle between us and around this we sit chewing at the remains of the day's rations.
Suddenly the bombardment begins.
The shells begin to hammer the trench above.
The candlelight flickers.
We look at each other apprehensively. We try to talk as though the thing we dread most is not happening.
The sergeant stumbles down the steps and warns us to keep our battle equipment on.
The dugout is an old German one; it is braced by stout wooden beams. We look anxiously at the ceiling of the hole in which we sit.
The walls of the dugout tremble with each crashing explosion.
The air outside whistles with the rush of the oncoming shells.
The German gunners are "feeling" for our front line.
The crashing of the shells comes closer and closer. Our ears are attuned to the nuances of a bombardment. We have learned to identify each sound.
They are landing on the parapet and in the trench itself now.
We do not think of the poor sentry, a new arrival, whom we have left on lookout duty.
We crowd closer to the flickering candle.
Upstairs the trench rings with a gigantic crack as each shell lands. An insane god is pounding it with Cyclopean fists, madly, incessantly.
We sit like prehistoric men within the ring of flickering light which the candle casts. We look at each other silently.
A shell shatters itself to fragments near the entrance of the dugout.
The candle is snuffed out by the concussion.
We are in complete darkness.
Another shell noses its shrieking way into the trench near the entrance and explodes. The dugout is lit by a blinding red flash. Part of the earthen stairway caves in.
In the blackness the rigging and thudding over our heads sounds more malignant, more terrible.
We do not speak.
Each of us feels an icy fear gripping at the heart.
With a shaking hand Cleary strikes a match to light the candle. The small flame begins to spread its yellow light. Grotesque, fluttering shadows creep up the trembling walls.
Another crash directly over our heads!
It is dark again.
Fry speaks querulously:
"Gee, you can't even keep the damned thing lit."
At last the flame sputters and flares up.
Broadbent's face is green.
The bombardment swells, howls, roars.
The force of the detonations causes the light of the candle to become a steady, rapid flicker. We look like men seen in an ancient, unsteady motion picture.
The fury of the bombardment makes me ill at the stomach.
Broadbent gets up and staggers into a corner of our underground room.
Fry starts a conversation.
We each say a few words trying to keep the game alive. But we speak in broken sentences. We leave thoughts unfinished. We can think of only one thing–will the beams in the dug-out hold?
We lapse into fearful silences.
We clench our teeth.
It seems as though the fire cannot become more intense. But it becomes a little more rapid–then more rapid. The pounding increases in tempo like a noise in the head of one who is going under an anesthetic. Faster.
The explosions seem as though they are taking place in the dugout itself. The smoke of the explosives fills the room.
Fry breaks the tension.
"The lousy swine," he says. "Why don't they come on over, if they're coming?"
We all speak at once. We punctuate our talk with vile epithets belittling the sexual habits of the enemy. We seem to get relief in this fashion.
In that instant a shell hurtles near the opening over our heads and explodes with a snarling roar. Clods of earth and pieces of the wooden supports come slithering down the stairway.
It is dark again. In the darkness we hear Anderson speak in his singsong voice:
"How do you expect to live through this with all your swearing and taking the Lord's name in vain?"
For once we do not heap abuse and ribaldry on his head. We do not answer.
We sit in the darkness, afraid even to light the candle. It seems as though the enemy artillerymen have taken a dislike to our candle and are intent on blowing it out.
I look up the shattered stairway and see a few stars shining in the sky.
At least we are not buried alive!
The metallic roar continues.
Fry speaks: "If I ever live through this, I'll never swear again, so help me God."
We do not speak, but we feel that we will promise anything to be spared the horror of being buried alive under tons of earth and beams which shiver over our heads with each explosion. Bits of earth from the ceiling begin to fall . . .
Suddenly, as quickly as it began, the bombardment stops.
We start to clear up the debris from the bottom of the stairs.
To think we could propitiate a senseless god by abstaining from cursing!
What god is there as mighty as the fury of a bombardment? More terrible than lightning, more cruel, more calculating than an earthquake!
How will we ever be able to go back to peaceful ways again and hear pallid preachers whimper of their puny little gods who can only torment sinners with sulfur, we who have seen a hell that no god, however cruel, would fashion for his most deadly enemies?
Yes, all of us have prayed during the maniac frenzy of a bombardment.
Who can live through the terror-laden minutes of drum-fire and not feel his reason slipping, his manhood dissolving?
Selfish, fear-stricken prayers–prayers for safety, prayers for life, prayers for air, for salvation from the death of being buried alive . . .
Back home they are praying, too–praying for victory–and that means that we must lie here and rot and tremble forever . . .
We clear away the debris and go to the top of the broken stairs.
It is quiet and cool.